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Law and Alcoholics Anonymous
Tom P., Jr.
Two of Four
favorable press coverage of the AA story was also a major
factor in the spectacular growth pattern. A series of enthusiastic
articles on AA appeared in the fall of 1939 in the Cleveland
Plain Dealer. These pieces produced a flood of new AA members
in the Cleveland area. This sudden expansion was the first
tangible evidence that AA had the potential to grow into
a Movement of major proportions.
sequence of events during this period is significant. The
Big Book was published in April of 1939, and in it the suggestions-only
approach to the Steps was disseminated for the first time.
A few months later the Plain Dealer articles ran, and Cleveland
AAs found themselves relating to new prospects on an unprecedented
level. It suddenly became attractive, in a way it had not
been before when the fellowship was smaller and more intimate,
to ease up a bit on the idea that all the principles should
be practiced all the time by all the members. More and more
emphasis began to be placed on the fact that the Steps were
to be considered as suggestions only. At this time, and
through this set of circumstances, the "cafeteria-style"
- take-what-you-like- and-leave-the-rest-out - approach
to the Twelve Steps came into practice.
it seemed to work. It turned out that many newcomers could
get sober and stay sober without anything like the full
and intensive practice of the whole program that had been
considered a life-or-death necessity in the early years.
In fact alcoholics in significant numbers began to demonstrate
that they could stay off booze on no more than an admission
of powerlessness, some work with other alcoholics and regular
attendance at AA meetings.
is not to say that all AAs began to take this very permissive
approach to the Twelve Steps. A great many continued to
opt for the original, full-program approach. But now for
the first time the workability of other, less rigorous approaches
was established, and a tendency had emerged which was to
become more pronounced as time went on.
first this seemed like an unmixed blessing. After all, those
who chose actively to practice all of the Twelve Steps were
as free as ever to do so. Those who preferred working with
some, or just a couple, of the Steps were staying sober
too. And AA was attracting more and more new members and
more and more favorable recognition. In 1941, Jack Alexander's
article on Alcoholics Anonymous was published in the Saturday
Evening Post. AA membership at the time stood at 2,000.
In the next nine months it jumped 400% !
1941 (which was the year my father, Tom P. Sr., came into
the Fellowship) it was possible to distinguish three variant
practices of the AA program, which we have labeled the strong-cup-of-tea,
medium-cup-of-tea and weak-cup-of-tea approaches. Strong
AA was the original, undiluted dosage of the spiritual principles.
Strong AAs took all twelve of the Steps- and kept on taking
them. They did not stop at the admission of powerlessness
over alcohol, but went on right away to turn their wills
and lives over to God's care. They began to practice rigorous
honesty in all their affairs. In short order they proceeded
to take a moral inventory; admit all their wrongs to at
least one other person; take positive and forceful action
in making such restitution as was possible for those wrongs;
continue taking inventory; admitting their faults and making
restitution on a regular basis; pray and meditate every
day; go to two or more AA meetings weekly; and actively
work the Twelfth Step, carrying the AA message to others
medium AAs started off with a bang, pretty much like the
strong AAs, except they hedged or procrastinated a bit on
parts of the program that they feared or did not like -
maybe the God Steps, maybe the inventory Steps, depending
on their particular nervousness or dislikes. But after they
had stayed sober for awhile, the medium AAs eased up and
settled into a practice of the program that went something
like this: an AA meeting a week; occasional Twelfth Step
work (leaving more and more of that to the "newer fellows"
as time went on) some work with the Steps (but not like
before) ; less and less inventory (as they became more and
more "respectable"); some prayer and meditation still, but
not on a daily basis any more ("not enough time" due to
encroachment of business engagements, social activities
and other baggage that went along with the return to normal
life in the workaday world).
weak AAs were a varied lot. Common to the weak approach
everywhere is that it left out big chunks of the program
totally and permanently. Sometimes it was the God Steps,
sometimes the inventory Steps, often both. Weak AAs tended
to talk like this: "All you need to do to stay sober is
go to meetings and stay away from the first drink". Most
of the weak AAs who were successful in staying sober were
pretty faithful meeting-goers. Since they were doing so
little with the principles, their sobriety and their survival
depended more exclusively than did those of the strong and
medium AAs on constant exposure to the people of AA.
fact is that only the strong-cup-of-tea members were practicing
the program as it had been laid out in the Big Book. Granting
that the medium and weak AAs had every right as AA members
to practice the principles any way they wanted to (including
hardly any at all), since the Steps were "suggestions-only"
- still, the way the first members had done it, and the
way the Big Book had recorded it, was the strong-cup-of-tea
medium approach had - and still has - a real, constructive
place in the AA recovery scheme, in that it can be used
as a temporary platform for reluctant beginners. The medium-cup-of-tea
option enables many who initially are not up to the strong
approach, to gain a foothold in the Fellowship of Alcoholics
medium AA can - and often does - become a trap. Medium AA
is no place for an AA member to try to settle out permanently.
People who remain too long in medium AA easily pass the
point where they might be encouraged to step up to strong
AA, and they end up sliding back into weak AA.
AA has none of the redeeming features of medium AA. Weak
AA is clearly at odds with the program as outlined in the
Big Book. Weak AAs bases itself on a flat and un-negotiable
refusal to work with vital recovery principles. Weak AA
cops out and stays copped out on most of the Twelve Steps.
Weak AA waters down the program to the point where there
really is no program. A more accurate term than "weak AA"
would be "copped-out and watered-down AA" - COWD AA for
the passage of time, a development has taken place in AA
- in the respective popularity and acceptability of the
strong approach versus the weak, COWD approach.
their early years, the weak, COWD AAs tended to feel obliged
to defend and sing the praises of their heterodox approach,
and even to chide the strong AAs a bit for being rigid and
holier-than-thou. The strong AAs, for their part, tended
to be more relaxed and tolerant, less strident, less defensive.
After all, their method was obviously safer, since it involved
taking more of the medicine. And it was obviously the original
and genuine article - as the Big Book attested.
the juxtaposition of attitudes came to have a peculiar effect
in a Movement which prided itself on its good-natured inclination
to let all kinds of maverick opinions and practices have
their say and their way. The loudest voices in the Movement
came to be the voices of weak AAs, and these voices, in
time, came to have the greatest impact on newcomers. Copped-out
and watered-down AA came to be the “in” thing, the wave
of the future; strong AA came to be regarded - not universally,
but widely - as a bit stodgy and a bit passé.
weak, COWD AAs had, in a sense, proven Bill and the first
hundred AAs wrong. In the introduction to the Twelve Steps,
the statement, “we thought we could find an easier, softer
way, but could not” was an unequivocal assertion that it
was necessary to practice all the Steps. But the COWD AAs
did not practice all the steps, and they were staying sober.
They had found an easier, softer way. Human nature being
was it is, it was inevitable that the less demanding, weak
approach would grow in popularity while the older, more
rigorous approach would decline. Who wants to drive a car
with standard shift when the model with automatic is a hundred
year 1993 marks the fifty- eighth year of AA’s existence.
There is still some lip service in the Movement to the importance
of working all the Steps and practicing rigorous honesty
in all one’s affairs. But as a matter of fact, precious
few AAs continue to attempt seriously and consistently to
do these things on a daily basis - not after their first
months of sobriety in the Fellowship.
to a lower, more ‘normal’ level of aspiration is the order
of the day. Those who do continue to practice strong AA
have to be careful how they talk about what they are doing
in AA meetings. In many places, too much or too serious
talk about God is considered bad form. The same is true
about talk on subjects of confession, restitution and rigorous
honesty - especially where they affect such difficult and
sensitive life areas as job applications, tax returns, business
dealings and sex relations.
if weak AA works - if it produces recovery - what fault
is there to find with it? Maybe this is a case where heterodoxy
turns out to be superior to orthodoxy. Why should anyone
go to the trouble of practicing strong AA? For one good
reason: weak AA, in very many cases, really doesn’t work.
Weak AA brings about a far less profound life alteration
than strong AA does. In many cases, the change which weak
AA produces is not enough to crack the alcoholic pattern,
and results in an apparent recovery which does not last
but sooner or later eventuates in a relapse into drinking.
And in many cases where weak AA does succeed in producing
lasting sobriety, these weakly sober AAs peter out into
lives of depression, anxiety, bitter resentment and real
despair, just like nearly all the other merely dried-out
drunks in history.
weak AA really amounts to is merely a form of cheating on
AA. I am reminded of an old song which they used to sing
in the White Plains (NY) Group back in the early 40’s (sung
to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”)
been staying away from the meetings,
I’ve been staying away from the crowd,
A pint and three newbies, then call the hack,
Here’s one wack that is flat on his back,
Take me out to Bellevue, so I can remember my name,
I must be nuts to think I could cheat on the AA game.
be that as it may. Back to the question: what were the original
AAs really shooting for?
Part 1: Gresham's Law
and Alcoholics Anonymous - front page.
Part 2: America was boozy and was spawning a great many
Part 3: What they were
shooting for, and what they aimed their program at, was
not mere sobriety...
Part 4: There is only
one term in the Twelve Steps that has been changed since
the Big Book was first published in 1939.